Random Acts of Kindness: Delta steps in, part 2
When we left off, Wendell Williams described the guilt and shame he carried after his fall from “family and community hero to less-than-zero.” He moved back to the Midwest to try to reclaim his old life and entered an adult rehabilitation program. He started making progress, but was derailed when he fell in “lust” and lost focus. After getting out of the relationship and bouncing around from recovery houses to shelters and finally to jail, he got back on track with the help of Cheryl, a “Super Caseworker.”
About this time, I was somehow contacted by a family member and told that my mom had Stage 4 cancer and was dying. Since I didn’t have a cell phone (remember those days?), I can’t remember how they found me. But I somehow got my hands on a phone, the kind where you went to a 7-Eleven or gas station and loaded up prepaid cards of $10 or more to talk at .75 cents a minute (.25 cents after 10 p.m.) and started to regularly contact my mom. She and I were never close. I never understood why, because I always wanted her love and approval, but I never seemed to do anything right in her eyes. After some time, I had convinced myself it could be because she was physically abused, and I looked like, sounded like and was named after the abuser.
On days when she was coherent, we would talk until my minutes ran out. Whenever I would start to cry, she would tell me how proud she was of me and my work with the paper and the coalition’s speakers bureau — where we went out to churches, community groups and schools to talk to concerned people about homelessness and recovery from it.
I had told her of an upcoming speaking engagement at an annual luncheon for General Electric Aircraft Engine Division employees who supported the Free Store where I was a volunteer. It’s an unbelievable place that helps the community with everything from food, clothes, employment training, financial assistance and housing to medical issues, as well as various forms of counseling. I was told there would be more than 500 people attending.
In what was my last conversation with her, I couldn’t keep it together and announced that I needed to come home to see her, and I’ll never forget what she said next. She said she understood completely that she was dying and had made her peace with this life and her death, so I should do so, as well. And, in no uncertain terms was I to leave without letting those people know my story and the difference they were making in my life and the lives of others.
I could hear in her voice she was tiring, so I let her go and promised we’d talk after the engagement the next day. But in that last conversation she verbally held me close. In that last hour, she rocked me to sleep emotionally the way I always wished she would have done.
Early the next morning I was somehow reached and told that my mother had passed. I wanted to drink or use something so bad to numb my feelings. I was hurt to the core. But I didn’t want to dishonor my pledge to her, so I didn’t. I got up, put on the nice like-new donated suit and brand-new shoes Ms. Pat from the clothing closet had bought me. I found out later that day that her husband was a GE senior executive.
I went outside to wait for Cheryl, who would be supporting and riding with me to the fancy hotel for the event. As we entered the venue, I was blown away by the splendor of the setting, from huge flower arrangements to the filet mignon I saw listed on the posted menu. “How could I possibility connect with this group?” I thought.
Since I had been seen in Free Store public service ads, people greeted me as if they knew me and I felt really welcome and settled down, until I saw where I was seated. I was seated in the place of honor on stage with my name on a placard big as day and surrounded by GE and airline officials who made their way over to introduce themselves to me. What a role reversal. The waiters started to serve our meals, and my thoughts weren’t too far away from what my brothers and sisters on the streets and in shelters were eating. As the meal ended, I was astonished by the amount of uneaten food left on the plates and wondered aloud how I could get the leftovers, and I wasn’t joking.
When the time came, I was introduced and made my way to the mic. I started to open my mouth to tell them who I was when my body began to shake and tremble. I tried hard as I could to hold it together. But I broke down crying as I was overcome with emotions and thoughts of my mother’s last conversation. Then I remembered her instructions, steadied my voice, and her spirit led me. I finished and headed to the back of the room, where Cheryl had set up a table as people along the way reached out to shake my hand.
Now I could distribute the paper and the coalition’s book, “Street Words.” Sales were brisk, but certainly nowhere near the cost of a last-minute plane ticket. Then it happened. Three professionally dressed women approached and spoke with Cheryl as I interacted with people wanting papers and/or a book. Cheryl asked me to join her in the conversation with the women. They identified themselves as Delta Air Lines employees. Even today, after talking with Cheryl recently, neither of us could remember their names or what they did at Delta, but what they said next I do remember: “Mr. Williams, you will be going home for your mom’s service on a bereavement flight which we will arrange,” and out of the blue, just like that, I was on my way. But there were a few hurdles left.
First, I had no ID to claim my ticket. And as some may not know, it takes ID to get ID. It’s a Catch-22: you need multiple forms of identification to qualify for any other form of identification. And I didn’t have much time. The flight was the next morning.
Cheryl took me to a downtown location of the DMV for a walker’s ID (remember, this was pre-9/11). I just knew the plans could be sunk, but when my number was called, I stepped to the counter and found a sympathetic soul who accepted a piece of mail addressed to me and sent me on my way.
We stopped by the Delta downtown office and picked up my ticket only to find that not only did the flight have several stops, including going through Atlanta with an arrival time of just after the service would be starting, but also with an added twist that I would be landing at BWI, where no family member could pick me up. It looked again like I would, after all this, miss it. But again, something happened: I somehow reached my sister who said one of her college friends was coming down from Philadelphia and was running late and she’d ask her to scoop me up if she could. They both worked for Verizon, which meant they had cell phones. I had never met my sister’s friend and was just told to stand outside at the curb. Before too long a blue VW Beetle jets up., The driver blows the horn and says, “Are you ‘Wendell?” and we were off. We got there with about an hour remaining in the service.
As everyone was leaving, I saw an old friend and asked how he knew about my mom’s service. He said his mom and mine were friends for years — I never knew. What he said next turns out to be key. He told me my old girlfriend was now back in D.C. and I should call her. I did, and she asked where I was staying, and it occurred to me I hadn’t figured all that out yet. I believe she could hear in my voice I didn’t have a clue.
With all of the events of the past 48 hours, that detail had slipped my mind. She suggested I consider staying with her for as long as needed. It was a great. We hung out like old times. She even drove me to pick up my daughter who was in town and took her shopping with the Target gift certificates given to me as an honorarium for the GE speech.
It is said timing is everything, and while I was in D.C. for a few weeks rekindling my long-lost relationship, my father passed after going in the VA Hospital for a week-long check-up.
But I had the opportunity to see him and make some much-needed amends. As you can imagine, both parents dying so close together left all my siblings devastated. That’s when I found out the real reason I was brought here and its importance. My siblings had been there step-by-step with both my parents’ battles with cancer. They were worn out. But because I wasn’t, I was able to, with one of my brother’s help, shoulder a lot of the load they had been carrying all along. I took on some of the tasks leading to the second service in less than 30 days.
Because Delta stepped in, not only was I here for one service, but I also found myself home for both. Thanks, Delta Ladies, whoever you are. The chain of Random Acts of Kindness you set in motion will never be forgotten.